The First Women Who Roared into the U.S. House

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 11, 2018 | Go to article overview

The First Women Who Roared into the U.S. House


Byline: Ronald G. Shafer The Washington Post

So many women roared to victories in Tuesday's elections that a record of more than 100 are slated to be in the U.S. House when it convenes in early 2019. That's a long way from 1917, when Jeanette Rankin joined the chamber as its first and only female member.

The 36-year-old Rankin won election as a Republican in Montana after campaigning on horseback. She was nationally known as a leader in the suffrage movement and had helped women in Montana win the vote in 1914. She promised to work "for laws that women shall be paid the same wages as men for equal amounts of work."

Rankin's arrival at Congress on April 1, 1917, was front-page news across the country. As a male Montana lawmaker escorted Rankin to her seat in the rear center of the House, all the members and spectators in the gallery rose to their feet cheering. Rankin wore a dark dress and no hat, the Associated Press reported. Congressmen treated Rankin politely, but one newspaper warned against venturing into the Republican cloakroom where she would have to endure "swear words and mingled grades of tobacco smoke."

The new congresswoman made a splash with a vote on her first day. Congress held a joint session to hear President Woodrow Wilson call for a resolution of war against Germany to "make the world safe for democracy."

Rankin, a pacifist, was one of 50 House members to vote against the resolution. Back home the Helena Independent labeled her a "a dupe of the Kaiser" and "a crying school girl."

The congresswoman earned respect by pushing her women's rights agenda, but in 1918 she lost a bid to become the first woman in the Senate. As a lobbyist, she helped win passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, in 1920. She was elected to the House again in 1940.

When male lawmakers referred to her as "the lady from Montana," she adopted a line from a female colleague: "I'm no lady. I'm a member of Congress."

After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Rankin was the only lawmaker to vote against a resolution of war. Amid an angry outcry, she was given a police escort to her office. Rankin didn't run in 1942. She would later consider another House run from California in 1970 to protest the Vietnam War. She died in 1973 at the age of 92.

Rankin's pioneering efforts inspired other women to seek political office. In 1920, 66-year-old Alice Robertson, an Oklahoma Republican, became the second woman elected to the House. Robertson was an advocate for Native Americans but opposed the women's rights movement. She was the first woman to defeat an incumbent but lost her seat after one term.

In 1925, Florence Kahn, a California Republican, became the fifth female and the first Jewish woman in the House. At 59, Kahn won a special election to take over the seat long held by her deceased husband. She made a name for herself and became the first woman on the Military Affairs Committee. …

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